The Childhood of a Leader

Brady Corbet

And so you stagger out of the cinema, battered, shaken and perplexed by the experience. Was it a great film, as some people say? Was it an awful film, as more than one think? The  superb, splintering score by Scott Walker, and Lol Crawley’s fabulous cinematography combine to make an enormously powerful visceral experience, the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding so strong one yearns for light and space. But what is Corbet actually saying here?

The ‘childhood’ is that of the terrifying young son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his gloomy European wife (Bérénice Bejo), observed at the time of the post-World War I peace conference at Versailles in 1919.  Various grim-faced suited men flit in and out of the house of this most dysfunctional family, including journalist Charles (Robert Pattinson). Darkness and obscurity rule, many conversations are on the edge of inaudibility, and we’re not always quite sure what we are witnessing – are the Wife and Charles exchanging meaningful glances? What is the Father talking about with the governess so intimately? The only clear and evident events are enacted by the son, played by the phenomenal 10-year-old Tom Sweet, inexplicably dressed in the skirted nursery clothes of children of the time much younger, and with chin-length wavy blond hair, and more than a look of the beauteous Tadzio from Death in Venice about him. Not surprisingly, and especially when he’s mistaken for a girl by one of the visitors, he is deeply mixed up and throws ‘tantrums’, the occurrence of which form the sections of the film. After one of these he locks himself in his room and, now wearing a man’s dressing gown, takes in effect psychological control.  He’s certainly a terrifying child, first seen dressed as a (very convincing) angel for a nativity concert at the local church, then immediately chucking stones at the churchgoers as they leave. (Young Mussolini apparently did something similar) And his ‘tantrums’ are quite something, though I’ve seen worse in Tesco’s.

But where the film falls down is in failing to make any real connection, realistic or poetic, between this dark, in every sense, childhood and the consequences of political process being carved out.  Is his later appearance, as ‘Prescott’ (a name finally revealed, and one that unfortunately has quite other resonances to British ears) the megalomaniac fascist leader, a direct product of this sometimes repressive but not loveless childhood?  In which case we don’t really see the process of his becoming this creature, he’s bad from the start. Is he a mere representation of what might be seen as the lawless id of the group of nations whose egos are destined to make seriously bad decisions about the terms of the treaty, leaving fertile ground for the resentment of the dispossessed vanquished? Whose son is ‘Prescott the Bastard’ really, and does it matter?  In the end the film spoils itself by obfuscation and a rather lazy and simplistic pretence of cause and effect.And this is a serious fault. But it’s a thrilling and physical and scary ride, an assault on all the senses. Corbet’s second film will be very interesting.

Seen Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, August



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